Croissance Hair and Skin Care Ltd owner Crystal Williams and founder of Prudent Caribbean David Chong Ling believe Trinidad and Tobago is fertile ground for innovative entrepreneurs to thrive, even amid the economic haze that came with the covid19 pandemic. The companies are making waves in the local self-care industry and have been spreading their reach beyond local shores.
In this two-part series Business Day writer Marshelle Haseley speaks with both business owners about the growing pains of building a business amid unprecedented unpredictability. They discuss how they ensure their products stand out in what seems to be a local market saturated by imported products. They also share their weathered challenges to a point where they can now see the rewards of stressful days and sleepless nights.
Crystal Williams, founder of Croissance Hair and Skin Care Ltd, had no intention of creating a business, she was simply trying to create something that could work well in her hair – something she could not find anywhere in TT. She is not a trained chemist but found a way to create a product that works best for many women across TT.
"There was a lot of research, testing, trial and error before I got to the very first version of the hair moisture therapy, which it wasn't called that back then. A lot of testing was done, substituting some ingredients with others as my knowledge increased and eventually coming up with the initial formula."
She said the thought was not to create something to sell to others. "There weren't any lofty ambitions at the time. It was just a matter of being able to manage my hair well enough so that getting ready for work every day was made a bit easier."
She said it took almost a year of research, testing and step-by-step improvement before she had a formula that worked well for her hair.
It wasn't long before family members, friends and colleagues at work started commenting on the obvious change in her hair. "They asked what I used in my hair because they liked how it looked. When I told them I made my own hair product, they asked for samples – they loved how it worked for them too."
Williams later found herself supplying them with more bottles of her hair care potion and that's when she realised there was a potential business opportunity worth being explored.
"After speaking with those close to me I came up with the brand name Croissance. The hair moisture therapy was the first product. It took almost 18 months between the idea and my first official sale."
Asked about major challenges she encountered while producing and working toward the official launch of her line of products, she said there were more than a few.
Among the challenges was equipment. Williams said figuring out a faster and more efficient way of producing larger quantities to supply her growing demand sent her to the drawing board. She said, "It was easy to make just enough for myself every few weeks, but making enough for others was more difficult. It would take hours just to make a dozen bottles. Yes, that was a lot at the time. Getting proper equipment and an efficient process was the first major challenge.
Using the salary from her day job, which she has since left to manage her business full-time, and savings allowed her to acquire the necessary equipment.
Another challenge was finding reasonably priced raw materials. She said sourcing materials in a cost-efficient way was difficult, especially since as time passed by she demanded larger quantities. She however did her research and was able to find quality raw materials at a reasonable price point.
The company sources containers and labels locally, while all other materials are imported.
She went on to list distribution as another challenge. As word spread about the product through word of mouth and Facebook, people outside Port of Spain started making requests.
"This is where I sought the assistance of my then boyfriend, now husband, and my brother to help with deliveries. It wasn't easy because we all had full-time jobs. Running away from work to deliver products was difficult."
She soon after decided to attempt selling the product to a store, which she preferred not to name and directed people to the outlet for purchases.
"Due to the high cost of production at the time, and the fact that the first store that I approached wasn't willing to purchase the product for more than its cost of production, that option didn't make any sense. So, I continued with the way I did it before – selling to people to whom I could reach easily until we got a breakthrough with a store."
While her business grew and she found ways of managing this new chapter of her life – her personal life was no less eventful.
" In 2015, I got engaged and juggling Croissance, work, planning a wedding and everything in between became too much. So, I put Croissance on hold. A few months after the wedding in 2016, however, the itch resurfaced and with the encouragement and help from my husband, we started again."
The couple got back to grinding away at night after work. After a few months, they approached another store, Mustapha's Ar-Ridha on Henry Street, Port of Spain. "Mr Mustapha agreed to take our product on. From there, we told our usual customers it was available there and word began to spread. As more people tried the product and loved it, sales increased."
Williams said life outside the business will never stop so it was merely a matter of continuously learning how to navigate the challenges that both personal and business life throw their way, without letting one completely overwhelm the other.
When the brand was officially launched in August 2016, they did advertising on social media and distributed printer flyers at which point the hair moisture therapy was the sole product. The company has since expanded its line of products to include the moisture-rich herbal shampoo and conditioner and a stimulating growth oil infusion.
Williams said she is amazed by the reception the brand has received over the past few years. "The products don't remain on the store shelves at all. We're always receiving phone calls and messages asking when the stores will be restocked, even though shipments were sent to the stores just a few days before. We're constantly tagged on social media by happy customers showing off their hair, giving reviews and recommending the products. I think our customers are genuinely satisfied and we are extremely grateful for the support that they continually give to us."
Asked how the pandemic affected business, she said it drastically affected production and is still severely impacting them.
She said, "Many of our suppliers weren't operating – and those who were, did so with reduced staff and shorter hours." Williams said orders that normally took a few days to process and ship started taking weeks.
"Shipping was delayed as well."
When the items eventually made it to Trinidad, she said, there was an additional long wait for clearance at customs because of the reduced staff. "There were shortages in some of our materials as well as price increases. Most recently, the shortage of US currency, which we need to purchase our materials, has been the biggest obstacle. It has caused a pause in production. We're working tirelessly to resolve this so we can get back to production as soon as possible."
Asked if there is any specific story from a customer that pulled at her heartstrings, Williams said it was difficult to pick just one. "From hair growth stories and people's hair being moist and manageable for days at a time, to people asking if they can taste the hair moisture therapy because it smells like something edible. The most common bit of feedback we have received though, is that the hair moisture therapy is the only thing that agrees with a lot of people's hair."
Williams and the Croissance team said they hope to expand their line of products as their next step. They have been developing new products, refining the formulae, all while preparing to ship their products outside TT, as people across the region and outside the region have reached out to them.
In the uncertain economic environment caused by the pandemic, Williams said the team at Croissance remains motivated by the feedback received from and the relationship with their customers – one that deepens and expands every day.
"Based on their feedback we know we are providing products that add value to their lives."